City billed county residents by mistake

Officials say refunds can be sought for $250 ambulance fees

February 04, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A private contractor collecting Baltimore City ambulance fees has been mistakenly billing Baltimore County residents for city ambulances dispatched into the county, and city fire officials say county residents may seek refunds for the $250 bills.

Rural Metro Corp. of Baltimore, hired to recoup uncollected city ambulance fees, has been billing county residents with city residents since September, said Klark Staffan, regional president of Rural Metro.

But Baltimore City fire officials acknowledged yesterday that the billing of county residents violates the terms of a 1989 Mutual Aid Agreement, which specifies that Baltimore-area jurisdictions not charge each other for police and fire services.

"The bills to county residents were being sent inadvertently and should never have been sent out," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a city Fire Department spokesman.

He said that the practice was stopped as of yesterday.

Torres said the problem arose because ZIP codes overlap for city and county residents in many areas.

City ambulances often respond to county calls when the nearest county ambulances are on another call, and county ambulances provide the same service when city ambulances are tied up, he said.

The city has been billing city residents for ambulance service since 1989, said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association. The county provides free ambulance service in the county.

"When a city [ambulance] unit responds and goes into the county, they're essentially acting as a county unit," Torres said.

Torres said that county residents seeking refunds should contact the city Fire Department's fiscal services office in the 400 block of N. Calvert St.

Torres could not say how many county residents were mistakenly billed, but estimated that it is "less than 1 percent" of the 160,000 ambulance calls that the city handles each year.

The issue of billing surfaced this week when Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger wrote a letter to the Carroll County commissioners promising to block a move by Carroll County's volunteer ambulance companies to begin charging Baltimore County residents for Carroll ambulance service.

Ruppersberger said the billing abrogates the terms of the Mutual Aid Agreement signed by all six jurisdictions in the Baltimore area in 1989 and means the ambulance companies could lose the immunity from lawsuits that is provided by state Good Samaritan laws.

Ruppersberger has pledged to fight the billing with legislation in Annapolis.

Carroll County Attorney Laurell Taylor disagrees with Ruppersberger's interpretation of the 1989 agreement between Carroll's volunteer fire companies and Baltimore, Harford, Anne Arundel and Howard counties and Baltimore City.

Carroll Commissioner Donald I. Dell opposes Baltimore County's attempts to block the volunteer fire companies from billing recipients of emergency medical service.

Dell said yesterday: "The Volunteer Firemen's Association in Carroll, which finds it necessary to bill for emergency medical services, is separate from the government. I support their efforts 100 percent."

Bob Alexander, president of the Carroll County Volunteer Fireman's Association, said that the county's 13 volunteer ambulance began billing because of increasing costs and that they will continue to send bills averaging about $300 each to Carroll and Baltimore County residents.

"We didn't want to go to this, but after all these years, push comes to shove sometimes," Alexander said.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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